The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum

News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community… but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

The News Of The World scandal brought to light some of the more salacious dealings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Empire. But as attention-grabbing as reports of phone hacking were, citizens of the UK were perhaps more shocked and ashamed by revelations that a cozy relationship had developed over the years between high-level government officials—as far-reaching as Scotland Yard and Prime Minister David Cameron—and executives from News Of The World, Murdoch’s now-shuttered tabloid.

A flurry of inquiries into the matter illustrated an almost symbiotic bond between Murdoch the man and government officials desperately seeking his approval. As much as an anathema as this is to purists in either journalism or the public sector, the fact is that media magnates have always curried favor with political leaders and well-funded private interests have unfortunately always had a penthouse suite in the fourth estate.

Less notably, to the outside world, Long Island itself has been besieged by our own local conglomerate in Newsday/Cablevision; one that quizzically evaded the scrutiny of the Department of Justice when it formed and is serving us its own unique brand of partisan influence, though political ideology appears to have little to do with it.

Long Islanders have come increasingly and unwittingly under the influence of Cablevision’s invisible hand as both News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community. To be sure, outlets such as the Press, local community weeklies and newer entrants such as Patch.com, have leveled the playing field to an extent; but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

BILLION-DOLLAR BATTLE

It was a story we planned to report, though it was not originally slated for our cover position. As the debate intensified and details of the project were being hastily, yet relentlessly thrown out from all sides, Michael Nelson, the Press’ Editor In Chief, decided upon a group assignment for the story. There were simply too many questions, too much posturing and too little time for one writer to pen a comprehensive piece. (CLICK TO VIEW COVER STORY)

This was a billion-dollar proposition. Those don’t come along every day.

All sides of the issue were pitted against one another and trading vituperative remarks, the most colorful ones coming off the record I can assure you. Former allies turned enemies. Civil discourse was abandoned almost from the start. Moreover, ideology was completely discarded as the Nassau Republican Party and the Nassau Democratic Party appeared to have switched sides somewhere along the way like a bad Hollywood “Mom-wakes-up-in-daughter’s-body” movie. Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader, was vilifying taxes and union labor supported infrastructure spending while Republican County Executive Edward Mangano was proposing to increase taxes almost the same amount as the home energy tax he repealed; a campaign promise that, quite frankly, got him elected.

Charles Wang and Ed Mangano’s relentless public relations and advertising blitz to encourage the passage of the Coliseum Referendum had the very opposite effect on the pubic. The very thought that Nassau would undertake such an enormous taxpayer-financed project against the backdrop of a country raging against government and high taxes—and at the height of the debt ceiling debate in Washington—inspired an over-taxed population to draw its own line in the sand. But that’s not the most interesting, and tragic part of what transpired during this campaign.

Our cover story, “On Thin Ice,” scrupulously detailed every aspect of the proposed development absent any hyperbole; we also took care to represent every side of the issue equally, concluding that while the details of the plan as presented were shaky at best the decision was an emotional one because the Coliseum played an important role in Long Island’s history.

Newsday’s coverage couldn’t have differed more.

HOW NEWSDAY COVERED IT

With one week to go until voters would be asked to decide whether or not to allow the county to issue a $400 million bond for the Coliseum, Newsday ran a photo of Charles Wang on the cover of its Sunday edition, the most widely circulated paper of the week. The headline read, “Wang and the Arena.” It was billed as “an interview” though it ran in the lead news position and spread over three pages. The interview, conducted by veteran reporter Ted Phillips, was formatted as a news story rather than an interview as it quoted both Wang and Michael Picker, Senior VP of the Islanders, and carried several paragraphs of analysis. This is an important distinction, because a proper news format should have carried opposing viewpoints to the Coliseum plan, particularly since the piece relied on more than just Wang’s interview. Only there were none.

Perhaps these were observations that only other members of the media or opponents of the plan would recognize, but after speaking with a Newsday staffer on the condition of anonymity, this murky piece came into focus. It was full of “unchallenged statements and assumptions,” claimed the staffer, who followed bluntly with, “quotes from the other side were cut.”

Newsday, it seemed, was in the tank for the referendum. Any questions regarding this assertion were, in my mind at least, answered one week later.

On Sunday, July 31, the day before the referendum, proponents of the Coliseum redevelopment plan issued a torrent of positive information regarding the plan in Newsday. Both the Islanders and the Steamfitting Industry Promotion Fund took full-page advertisements encouraging Nassau residents to “Vote Yes.” The news section carried a two-page “Q&A” on the Coliseum with a picture of the proposed rendering with a caption that read “Courtesy of New York Islanders.” The rendering had appeared seemingly out of the blue, with no attribution other than who supplied it. No architect, no engineering firm. Nothing. For Newsday to accept this rendering without questioning the source or viability of it was incredible.

Once again, the so-called answers in this piece were barely vetted or questioned, instead offering a snapshot of the opposing sides. As they had done the week before, Newsday accepted what was given to them at face value, even though just a few days prior the Press’ cover story highlighted critical errors and inconsistencies in the same reports. Conspicuously absent from the July 31 issue was an Op-Ed piece from the Association For A Better Long Island (ABLI) submitted a full two weeks prior, which Newsday held and decided not to run. But the most stunning part of the newspaper came on the Editorial Page.

VOTE YES

To fully appreciate the July 31 editorial, it is helpful to understand that Newsday’s honeymoon with the Mangano administration was short-lived. Consistently the Newsday Editorial Board and its columnists have chastened Mangano on several issues ranging from his ongoing feud with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) to his choice of key staffers and deputies. They have relentlessly hammered his fiscal agenda and the County Executive has responded defiantly along the way. This is why the Editorial titled “Vote yes for a new arena” was entirely anachronistic.

The editorial settles the financial argument by claiming that the worst-case scenario of the bond would be a $58 increase on homeowners’ tax bills and the best case is a profitable scenario that would “mitigate future property tax increases.” Nowhere in their calculations did they factor in the potential cost to commercial taxpayers, who pick up a greater share of the tax burden, thereby concluding: “So, $58 per year. That’s less than it would cost a family of four to travel to New York City to see an ice show, a boat show or a circus that they won’t see near home if the deal fails.” To paint the picture that $58 per year, per household was the worst-case scenario would be laughable if it wasn’t so troubling.

The remainder of the Editorial is a virtual press release for the Islanders. It offers a few minor hurdles, essentially admits that residents won’t have a full picture of the project and closes with “voters ought to get the process started by saying YES on Monday to sow the seeds for a vibrant and growing Nassau County.” Ignoring for a moment that the language and logic of the Editorial indicate that it was authored by a third-grader, the Editorial Board offered its full support for a non-binding referendum on a $400 billion bond by a county Newsday has positively excoriated for not paying its bills, laying off workers and ignoring a growing structural budget deficit.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Newsday was once a very good paper, and at times it still is. But its tacit endorsement of the Coliseum plan in news coverage such as the Phillips piece coupled with the outright support of the Editorial Board, suggests something is rotten in Denmark. Despite the fact that the Islanders appear to have spent a sizeable chunk of advertising dollars and that the Nassau Coliseum is entirely wrapped in an Optimum Online banner, this is more than the obvious advertising pay-to-play scenario.

What no one addressed at Newsday or News12 is that both the Islanders and Cablevision are controlled by two of the wealthiest individuals on Long Island. And their affiliation goes far beyond advertising.

Perhaps the disclaimer that should have appeared in Newsday’s coverage of the referendum is the best way to characterize their relationship:

Newsday’s parent company, Cablevision, owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, a competing venue to the Coliseum and archrival of the New York Islanders, respectively. It is considered one of the greatest and fiercest rivalries in sports, resulting in increased ticket revenue for both organizations. According to Forbes, Cablevision reportedly pays the Islanders $15 million annually (nearly 25% of the team’s annual revenue) for broadcast television rights on a contract written through 2030 provided the Islanders remain in the New York marketplace. According to the NYS Board of Elections, Cablevision was one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s largest financial donors in the first half of 2011.

I am in no way insinuating that Cablevision/Newsday and the Islanders were conspiring to maintain a financially beneficial arrangement between the two organizations by issuing propaganda, omitting certain key details in news stories, relaxing reporting standards and pumping campaign dollars into the account of the local political leader. I’m merely suggesting that such a disclaimer would have been useful information for the reader.

Nevertheless, a crazy thing happened in spite of the efforts put forth by the above parties. The referendum failed. Badly. In the end, the outcome may have been less about the opposition from the development community spearheaded by the ABLI or the sniper attacks from the Democrats, and more as a result of simple voter awareness inspired by Mangano and the Islanders. Ironically, had Islanders owner Charles Wang and the Republicans left well enough alone and favored a quieter, more traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, their chances might have increased dramatically. Instead their aggressive campaign served only to wake the anti-tax giant in many Nassau residents and the proposition failed.

Though not on the scale of the News of the World ignominy, the failure to influence the outcome of the Coliseum referendum should be a lesson to the Cablevision and Newsday executives. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but not if it is filled with invisible ink; both your adversaries and your followers will see right through you.

Suffolk County Cop Forgets First Amendment

Now, just when the immediate world is bickering over what should become of the Nassau Coliseum, Suffolk manages to step in and overshadow the vote on the other county’s future

Suffolk Cop Arrests PhotographerMemo to Suffolk County: The public has rights.

Thanks to Friday night’s little soiree between one overzealous member of the Suffolk County police corps and a working member of the media, Long Island is yet again thrust into the viral spotlight for embarrassing misdeeds. This time, it’s an attack on First Amendment rights.

Suffolk didn’t win its reputation as the ‘wild west’ easily. No, it earned it the hard way, as home to more than a generous helping of political scandal, police corruption, serial killers and that ugly little mystery which migrated to its white-sand shores, the Montauk Monster.

Now, just when the immediate world is bickering over what should become of the Nassau Coliseum, Suffolk manages to step in and overshadow the vote on the other county’s future: A news photographer working the scene of a police chase is denied access by one police officer and later arrested.

CLICK HERE TO SEE LI PRESS STORY UPDATE AND ORIGINAL VIDEO

The charge? Government obstruction.

The crime? Best as I can tell, it was committed by the man in blue.

For those keeping score, the police can dictate where and how close the media can come to covering the scene of a crime. In this particular instance, however, the scene was on the street – as public a place as anyone could conjure – and passersby were free to wander the area. Yet, it was the lone photographer singled out by one police officer. On video, the photographer is depicted as freely cooperating with the police officer’s wishes. On video, the officer continually tells the photographer to ‘push back.’ On video, the photographer continually asks where he should stand. Not long after that, he’s arrested.

Anyone has the right to video in public spaces – journalist, citizen journalist, blogger and John Q. Public all enjoy the same rights on this one.

To see such rights so violently demeaned says something is radically wrong in Suffolk.

There have been many indications that the First Amendment turns into gray area once you cross the 110 corridor.

There’s the little village to the south that tried to ban media coverage of its public meetings. Yes, you read that right. This one’s a particular favorite, best explained by the wording of the proposed resolution itself: The politicos wanted to avoid any possible “embarrassment.” Best for the village, yes; but bad for the public interest. It certainly makes you wonder what’s really happening behind closed doors in Town Hall, doesn’t it?

There’s the newspaper that superimposed a politician into a photograph taken at an event the politician didn’t actually attend. Best for the politician, of course. But bad for the public. Worse, for the newspaper industry, which is struggling to find a reason to live.

How about a certain East End newspaper that, once informed it had aggravated one of its readers via a contributor columns, took it upon itself to inform said reader – get this, another favorite – that editing the work of a freelancing contributor is a violation of the First Amendment. (No, it’s not.)

Scores of such silliness stand out over time, but the real message is this: The public – now more than ever before – needs a solid understanding of its rights and privileges as defined by the First Amendment. Compounding the issue is the prevalence of social media and the internet, where the unknowing easily turn into virtual prey.

Care, too, must be taken by members of the media. While Friday night’s mishap involved a credentialed photographer, few members of the media carry such credentials these days. Many, too – and as illustrated in the video, seen on You Tube – are lax about fully identifying themselves. In these days of revolving-door newsrooms, it’s up to the veterans to teach the newbies proper reporting techniques.

This, really, has little to do with being arrested, and everything to do with not being stopped from doing a job to protect the public’s right to know.

Gangsta Prankstas: Citizen Murdoch and Bill Oh’Really?

The actions of those involved in the evolving News Corp scandal are hardly surprising given the arrogance endemic to the organization as a whole.

Rupert MurdochIf it bleeds it leads.  With the specter of his News Corp getting hacked to pieces by the bloody politicians who have done his bidding, Rupert Murdoch has become the bleeding headline.  The miasma of Murdoch’s brand of “yellow journalism”, to quote frequent Fox News pundit, Congressman Peter King, has hung over Brits (and Yanks) like a London fog.  Now it is being dispersed by blasts from the media mogul’s very own supplicants.

Hacking into the cell phone of a murdered thirteen years-old schoolgirl to make room for false hope and more expressions of family anguish seemed just the ticket to keep a titillating tabloid story going.  Ditto that for terrorist bombing victims and dead soldiers.  There is no place for morality and ethics when titillation, manipulation, power and profits are the four corners of your world.  But sex, lies and payoffs have turned toxic for the Thunder from Down Under.     

Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who appointed the editor of Murdoch’s offending newspaper as his administration’s chief spokesman, was shocked, shocked by all this appalling behavior: “The people involved, whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, sanctioned it, or covered it up, however high or low they go, must not only be brought to justice, they must also have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.”

On this side of the pond, King wrote FBI Director Robert Mueller, to declare, “It is revolting to imagine that members of the media would seek to compromise the integrity of a public official for financial gain in the pursuit of yellow journalism….  If these allegations are proven true, the conduct would merit felony charges for attempting to violate various federal statutes related to corruption of public officials and prohibitions against wiretapping. Any person found guilty of this purported conduct should receive the harshest sanctions available under law.” 

To what degree has this gangster culture permeated Murdoch States-side operations like Fox ‘News’?  Exhibit A is the Bill O’Reilly Loufa Affair.  This sordid sortie was quickly covered up by $6 million in hush money Fox News president Roger Ailes purportedly paid to make one plaintiff female producer half O’Really’s age go away.   Leave aside the graphic recordings of phone sex and sexual predation contained in the Verified Complaint, Index No. 04114558  filed on October 13, 2004 in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.  In “Andrea Mackris, Plaintiff against Bill O’Reilly, News Corporation, Fox News Channel, Defendants,” O’Reilly rails into Mackris’ hidden microphone about what would happen should one of his victims complain:

“If any woman ever breathed a word I’ll make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.  I’ll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she’ll be destroyed.  And besides, she wouldn’t be able to afford the lawyers I can or endure it financially as long as I can.  And nobody would believe her, it’d be her word against mine and who are you going to believe?  Me or some unstable woman making outrageous accusations.  They’d see her as some psycho, someone unstable.  Besides, I’d never make the mistake of picking some crazy, unstable girl like that…

“If you cross Fox News Channel, it’s not just me, it’s Roger Ailes who will go after you.  I’m the street guy out front making loud noises about issues, but Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day BAM!  The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming.  Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on his door and life as he’s known it will change forever.  That day will come happen, trust me.” 

Oh really? Whitey Bolger couldn’t have gangsta-spun it any better, though he wouldn’t have gotten caught on tape.

Implication in criminal activity has not been a disqualifier in the News Corp/Fox world.  Consider Fox pundit Karl Rove, who barely escaped prosecution for his role in leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.  Rove came to his Machiavellian station as “Bush’s Brain” by cutting his spurs on political prankstering.  At 19, Rove assumed a false identity to access the campaign office of a Democratic candidate for Illinois treasurer.  He concocted a campaign flier on a thousand sheets of stolen letterhead promising “free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing” and distributed them to derelicts who showed up to disrupt the Democrat’s campaign rally.   Rove’s fingerprints were all over rumors of John McCain’s POW-induced instability and black love child during the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary.

Grand Old Pranksters can track their tradition back through Lee Atwater, Donald Segretti to the godfather of modern political buggery, Tricky Dick.  But it was the grand old man of yellow journalism, William Randolph “You can crush a man with journalism” Hearst who can lay claim to one of the founding principles of Fox family values when he got the boot from Harvard for a bevy of pranks including the imprinting of professors’ names inside chamber (piss) pots.  Or so he claimed; turns out he was expelled for grades.  Could prankstering be a gateway drug for News Corp criminality?

Lawyer for the family of murdered thirteen years-old Milly Dowler provided the most damning judgment upon yet another resignation and arrest of a News Corp exec: “This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.”

“Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel,” said Citizen Kane 72 years ago.  “His paper should be run out of town.”

The Anatomy of Power

The Power List isn’t a popularity contest or an opportunity to place famous faces on the cover of the newspaper. It’s a critical analysis of the inner-workings of arguably one of the strangest, most fascinating places on the planet; a family album of sorts that is interesting only to family members.

When given the task of finding a new home for the corporate headquarters of Canon U.S.A., executive vice president Seymour Liebman had the world at his feet. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York. He could have chosen anywhere other than the notoriously prickly and difficult Long Island real estate environment. Instead, he decided to move the vaunted Canon brand from Lake Success to Melville, proving that sheer will can overcome inertia.

Determined not to let politics stand in the way of public safety and pride of workmanship, Terence Hopper battled valiantly to warn elected officials, civic associations and the media about the perilous conditions at Nassau’s near-failing Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant. His efforts, alongside several other concerned workers at the facility, drew critical attention to an almost calamitous situation that could have endangered the lives of plant workers and nearby residents.

For more than three decades the cries of the impoverished Shinnecock Nation members went unheard in their quest for federal recognition that would set the tribe on the path to economic prosperity and restore a sense of pride to one of the only indigenous groups of Long Islanders. Leading the charge on the front lines and behind the scenes was former Shinnecock Trustee Lance Gumbs, who never wavered in his commitment to his heritage despite countless setbacks.

These are some of the stories you will read about in the 9th annual Power List issue of the Long Island Press where we publish a ranking of the 50 most influential people living on Long Island. This year’s list boasts 17 new members, the fewest number of elected officials since the inception of the list, and inducts six past honorees into the Power List Hall of Fame—a distinction given to those who have been selected to appear on the list five times.

The Power List is subjective and not always popular. This is partly due to the fact that while the Island’s population is growing increasingly diverse, the base of power remains remarkably, and unfortunately, homogeneous. Great care is taken to ensure there are no token appointees on the list as each person carries great significance in his or her field; nevertheless, the lack of diversity among leaders in positions of power is unavoidable when we pause to look in the mirror and examine our collective selves.

This is the gospel according to the Press that sparks controversy, inspires debate and alienates a substantial number of Long Islanders not included herein. For those of you not featured on the list, take heart as the list also excludes a couple of billionaires, scores of politicians and every working actor on the Island. There are no life coaches, high school professors or first responders either, for that matter. To be considered one must either consistently wield influence over particular aspects of our daily lives on the Island, or have done something of specific importance that altered the way we think or behave. There are myriad Long Islanders who have tremendous influence in national or even global affairs, but if their actions have little effect on our daily lives on Long Island they will not appear on this list.

The Power List isn’t a popularity contest or an opportunity to place famous faces on the cover of the newspaper. It’s a critical analysis of the inner-workings of arguably one of the strangest, most fascinating places on the planet; a family album of sorts that is interesting only to family members. Your family and friends who live elsewhere will likely care little about this list or the way in which it was compiled. So whatever you do, don’t drag it out like your wedding album or an old home movie to non-Islanders because they simply wouldn’t understand.

For all of our foibles, we Long Islanders are a curious and endearing bunch, making the process of assembling the list and assigning rankings a labor of love. Many of those who appear are subjects of the stories we write throughout the year, for better or worse. These are mostly profiles of people with great character and ambition, and of course, influence. With a list this subjective there will admittedly be more than a few omissions, which isn’t to say they weren’t in the running. Alas, there are only 50 spots on this list for 2.7 million of us.

Regardless of whether you thumb through the issue or read each entry carefully, take a moment to view it from 30,000 feet and examine the list in its entirety. Personally, I think it paints a hopeful picture. A portrait of an Island where people like Terence Hopper put people before politics and public safety before job security. An Island capable of retaining an important employer like Canon because of an executive who believes in us perhaps more than we believe in ourselves. A community that can finally begin to heal shameful and immoral acts of the past by recognizing the right of its indigenous people to take the first step on the path of prosperity.

These are the stories that represent our Island.

CLICK HERE to view the 2011 Power List.

Time is a Four Letter Word

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island.

Jaci Clement Time PieceIt’s about time. The local landscape has shifted dramatically over the last few years, as we’ve lost many of our long-time leaders due to retirement, economic turmoil and damning paper trails. 

The local media landscape has been time’s victim for quite awhile now, but media – which is always ahead of the curve when it comes to socioeconomic change – has had the advantage of using time to regroup. What’s emerging is a new paradigm, where the size of the media outlet no longer matters. Nor, the size of its audience. Today, it’s becoming clear the future of media is all about engagement. Large media outlets, like large companies, often have problems this: Too many levels of bureaucracy simply bring the concept to a screeching halt. Then the tail begins to wag the dog. From there, things get too unbearable to watch.

The timing is perfect for AOL’s Patch.com to enter the Long Island market. Unlike many areas of the United States, Long Island’s wired from head to toe, making this prime real estate for an internet-only engagement. The premise of Patch – to cover your local school boards and other hyper local goings on – is nothing short of brilliant on an Island where most of your taxes go straight into the schools. And, unlike a local upstart working from scratch, AOL’s got the goods. This island, if they’re smart, can be theirs for the taking.

Long Island Press has used time well, in discovering both its voice and its purpose: bringing to life important stories no other media outlet is covering. It’s the type of reporting that is, thankfully, short on patience for ideas generated from press releases. Long Island Business News continues to prove the size of a newsroom doesn’t matter. What does? Having reporters who know the market, and how it works.

If this was five years ago, the firewalling of Newsday content would have been nothing short of a death sentence for Long Island. The impact of such a decision is just this: It kills the amount of progress this region can make. After all, the public conversation drives public policy. When there is no conversation being heard, policy making doesn’t stop. It simply lacks substance. What’s happened, because of that firewall, Long Island’s biggest daily conversation has been silenced in Albany, Washington, D.C. and the rest of the country.

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island. It makes television coverage by New York City stations absolutely imperative for anyone off Long Island to remember that one, Long Island does still exist and two, we have stuff to say about what happens to us by policy makers when they’re in session. Long Island’s radio stations could be a big plus here, but local radio, like many of the local community newspapers, seem to be stuck in a moment in which they can’t find their way out.

Timing is everything.

Inside newsrooms, it’s all about time. Print editors taking longer than 10 seconds to make a story decision actually slow down the process of the entire paper. Television, operating on a five-second delay, allows news directors far less luxury than their ink-stained counterparts, as decisions affecting on-air stories must be made within four seconds. Small wonder news is such an imperfect animal. Right now, lots of time and money is being invested to decide if, when and if-ever it’s OK to say “f@*k you” on broadcast television.

This is a sentiment which underscores that time is, in fact, just as important to people outside of a newsroom. Especially in New York. The only variable on the time factor, in this particular case, happens to depend upon where you are in New York.

In Manhattan – where if you look at a stranger for more than one-sixteenth of a second, it’s viewed as a threat – a quick “f@*k you” is the ready retort. In extreme circumstances – someone stole your cab – you’ll hear polysyllabic adjective added to it, which easily — but quickly — bounces off the tongue.

On Long Island, where suburban sprawl has slowed life down a bit, the response is more akin to, “Oh, go f@*k yourself.” Complete with hand gesture, and a look. It’s really something more of a theatrical production but, again, time is on the side of Long Islanders.

Then there’s Brooklyn, where the basic response philosophy is to take it to the extreme. This is to make it tragically clear to the perpetrator not only that a boundary line has been crossed, but to emphasize where the line is, and to not bother approaching it again. Therefore: “F#*k you. And your mother.”

“Time can’t help but affect us all in wild and strange ways, but it’s clear the time has come, across the board and across the Island, to put up or shut up.

Media Malaise

If a local economy falls down and no one is there to report on it, does it make a sound? Jaci Clement from the Fair Media Council ponders the future of Long Island with less media coverage and more at stake than ever.

Ah, the suburbs.

My, my, my. What a mess we’ve got going on here.

To the east, we’re taken by surprise at the once-a-bright-light, now-a-lame-duck county exec situation. To the west we find the most humbling of insults: a control board calling the shots. In between, we suffer Albany’s wrath via crippling budget cuts destined to erode important service programs. Soon, we’ll have riders in need of buses. Hell, right now we have inmates in need of space.

To help keep our minds off that uber-annoying MTA tax and the brand new potty tax, we currently face the threat of skyrocketing property taxes. In short, it’s going to cost more to own the same house that’s now worth less than when you bought it.

Right now, worldwide, Long Island has catapulted into the spotlight for yet another dubious distinction: FBI profilers invited in, to walk the beach at Gilgo.

And it’s only April.

Is this all (OK, save for the serial killer) just a sign of the times? Is every community in this country at such a startling crossroads, or has Long Island’s geography finally undermined its destiny?

It’s easier to get away with everything – including murder – when you’re off the beaten path. Even Crain’s took note of the fact that one of the best places to operate a business fast and loose is Garden City. (It won the honor for being conveniently located near the city, but still far enough away for no one to bother looking after you.)

It’s our geography that enabled our lone daily newspaper to once tout the highest penetration rate of any newspaper in the nation. And it’s our geography that has so insulated Long Island from competition that we have one cable company bearing strong resemblance to a utility.

That geography is also where we always found our strengths, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone anymore. No one’s telling that story. It’s easier, I guess, to stand by and watch things implode.

Industrial Development Agencies (IDA) were once highly visible, both on and off the Island, in their attempts to draw business to the sandbar. And where did all those ad campaigns disappear to? You know the ones, highlighting our white sand beaches and family-friendly downtown shopping areas? The excitement of Belmont racing juxtaposed against the tranquility of the East End’s 40-plus vineyards?

Touting strengths in times of weakness is the fastest way to get back up and running. It not only draws people to you, but it gives those around you reason to stay.

In the end, it’s all about perception. Created by the media, sure, and just as easily destroyed by the same hands. The paradox here is this: Would Long Island be suffering so hard now if there had been enough reporters knocking on enough doors and asking enough of the tough questions?

The court of public opinion will always trump the court of law. Like it or not, what people think matters. It’s not about money, but whether you can open doors with just your name. No one knows that more than fallen politicians.

The Long Island name has long been synonymous with quality, bordering on exclusivity. If you wanted the best schools, the highest quality of life, low crime and abundant amenities, Long Island had what you wanted. Today’s news tells of a different Long Island, one that’s fast becoming unrecognizable, and in need of reinvention. Everyone – including the media, and especially the media – has to be part of the recovery plan.

You Like Us… You Really Like Us!

Courage, discipline and time. These are the ingredients that comprise great reporting. These are the characteristics that allow our writers to author pieces that challenge conventional wisdom, spark investigations and inspire legislation. It’s heady stuff.

My arm hurts. A job-related injury, no less. Who knew stretching before repeatedly patting oneself on the back was so important? This past weekend I accompanied a small group of Long Island Press staffers to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to attend the New York Press Association’s annual convention and awards ceremony. Not only was it an exceptional weekend in one of my favorite towns in America, but the Press did exceedingly well in the competition. In fact, we crushed it. 
In addition to winning 23 awards, 13 taking top honors, the Press received the Stuart C. Dorman Award for Editorial Excellence. Or, if you prefer: Newspaper of the Year. When we returned home, we were also notified that Chris Twarowski’s investigative series on the Cedar Creek sewage treatment facility was a finalist for the coveted Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Awards. 
Remarkably, I have yet to partake in the Dionysian revelry—feasting upon grapes and red wine whilst paraded through the office by strapping young men carrying me in a sedan chair—that typically accompanies such an impressive honor. 
The business of journalism has changed, but the journalism we value as a culture has not. Unfortunately, the reality of the former has impacted the sheer volume of the latter, which has led to a dearth of quality, long-form investigative journalism. This was evidenced by the fact that we swept both the in-depth reporting and the feature story categories. This is not to say our victories were preordained by the process of elimination; rather, it is because we determined as an organization that this would be the area of our field in which we excel. And we do. 
This isn’t all about the reporting and editing. It takes discipline to shelve a story that hits a dead end, no matter how long a story has been pursued. It takes courage to run with a story that has the potential to spurn advertisers or invite personal harm. It takes time for writers to hone their craft and develop their intuition. 
Courage, discipline and time. These are the ingredients that comprise great reporting. These are the characteristics that allow our writers to author pieces that challenge conventional wisdom, spark investigations and inspire legislation. It’s heady stuff. But they do not perform in a vacuum. This is a contract between writer and reader, one that is based upon trust. So, although the accolades and awards from our peers offer validation of our principles, our exuberance stems more from the fact that our product and presence have grown on Long Island more in the past two years than at any time during our nine-year journey. 
We have grown in the financial sense, yes, though it would be difficult to imagine performing worse given the economic tsunami in 2008 that accompanied an already declining ad-revenue market, paired with the great migration from print to online. More importantly, our print readership and circulation has remained stable while our online readership has grown more than 400 percent. I offer this not as a self-indulgent note (a continuation of the self-congratulatory diatribe above) but as an affirmation that journalism on Long Island is thriving in both our print and online manifestations; a clear benefit to you, the reader, and to our social, economic and political systems as a whole. 
At a time when the public is decrying the lack of transparency in government, the news media are still the primary sources for the antidote. And while many in our industry are bemoaning the continuing decline in advertising revenue and the direct impact it has on our collective ability to challenge the establishment and demand greater probity from power brokers and public officials, we could not be more excited to meet the challenge. In fact, I firmly believe there has never been a more exciting, necessary and interesting time to be in the field of journalism. 
The Long Island Press is entirely advertiser supported; therefore, our contract extends to our clients as well. Because we hold doggedly to our integrity and refrain from breaching the sacred wall between advertising and editorial, we have also managed over the past nine years to assemble a discerning clientele who recognize the value of our honesty, even when they may vehemently disagree with something we have written. 
Our success this week is a powerful reminder that we serve two masters: advertisers and readers. The unwritten contractual common ground is a bond that is enduring and growing ever stronger. The timing of it all gave me pause and a reason to take a break from my normal harangue to acknowledge the role we all play in disseminating the truth. This collaboration means the world to us, which is why we proudly accept the honors bestowed upon us this week, and the ones in years past, on behalf of the companies that support us and the readers who hold us accountable and rightfully demand more of their local newspaper.

Please Shut The F*#@ Up!

There is a grand chasm now in the media between punditry and journalism that previously existed as a slight divide. Increasingly it is becoming impossible to discern between what is vetted (journalism) and what is contrived for ratings (punditry). And because information is so readily available and propaganda is professionally disguised as gospel, false prophets in the guise of pundits have an incredible ability to take advantage of the masses.

So I says to this great old mama grizzy bear, "Gosh, you're not gonna catch any dinner with that darned cute lil' face. You gotta give the face I give to librel's ya. Like this!!! Grrrrr! Oh, you betcha. Gets 'em every gosh darned time!"

Hours before President Barack Obama’s address to attendees of a memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, Sarah Palin released a video titled “America’s Enduring Strength.” Her comments are tinged with appropriate sadness at first, before her sword turns against those who, she believes, are guilty of sullying the “national discourse”: namely, journalists.

During the video she accuses the press and the pundits who attempted to draw a link between her website and the shootings in Tucson of “blood libel.” The phrase “blood libel” originally referred to the anti-Semitic claim that during the Middle Ages Jews killed Christian children and used their blood in religious rituals. Now it will forever live on here in relation to a national American tragedy as conservative figures such as Palin attempt to appropriate historic and religious language for their own gain.

Palin’s misuse of historical references is nothing new. Her shocking lack of contextual understanding is an embarrassment to the nation, yet she persists, delivering ratings and gaining popularity. To continue with religious parallels for a moment, perhaps this memorial address by the president will be his road to Damascus moment; the great turning point in his presidency during which he transcends politics and becomes the vision of hope that fueled his ascent to our nation’s highest office.

By imputing journalists for tainting the national discourse, she inherently protects herself from the deserved vitriol over her sloppy remarks. The big problems with Palin’s video are that 1) she made it and 2) we’re watching. In it she bristles at being dragged into the limelight over this issue, though the very act of releasing the video furthers her involvement. Doing it on the day the president attempts to soothe the nation’s sorrow over the shootings and using the phrase “President Obama and I” reveal her true intention, which is to be seen as the de facto leader of conservative America. The not-so-silent majority.

Even more peculiar is the use of this video to excoriate journalists for taking part in public discourse while defending the freedoms we enjoy as Americans to engage in it. Palin is a walking, talking oxymoron—emphasis on the latter half of the word. This is essential to understanding Palin’s misunderstanding of America and the spirit of the documents that craft our existence to this day. In attempting to defend civil discourse by casting aspersions on the most valuable aspect of it—freedom of the press—she is engaging in rhetorical discourse and hoping the average American is incapable of discerning between the two. Civil discourse is what the Founding Fathers she is so fond of misinterpreting spent their lives trying to defend. Rhetorical discourse is a hallmark of demagoguery, the true philosophy to which Palin subscribes.

As a nation, we would be wise to tread lightly here. There is a grand chasm now in the media between punditry and journalism that previously existed as a slight divide. Increasingly it is becoming impossible to discern between what is vetted (journalism) and what is contrived for ratings (punditry). And because information is so readily available and propaganda is professionally disguised as gospel, false prophets in the guise of pundits have an incredible ability to take advantage of the masses.

Predictably, Palin plays to her followers by referencing the Founding Fathers, though her knowledge of these men and their actions skims the surface at best. In ecumenical tones, she says that “public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis but of our enduring strength. In times like these we need God’s guidance and the peace He provides.” This is a favorite refrain of the new conservative movement—to draw straight lines between faith and freedom while evoking the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. But these are words that, spoken in foreign tongues, are considered the vocabulary of zealots and extremists. Yet spoken in measured, folksy tones, they have come to embody the political and spiritual zeitgeist in America today. Palin and other so-called fundamentalist Christians who have risen to prominence in our nation fail to realize the decidedly secular importance of a godless Constitution—which is to say that God is not part of our Constitution and our Founding Fathers fought heartily and purposefully to ensure it.
And so it should be said then that Palin has every Constitutional right and freedom to release this video. Just as I have every right to call her a dangerous idiot. (Thank you, Founding Fathers!)

Crisis of Conscience and Confidence

The immediacy and ubiquity of news and information has created a glut of information and vortex of knowledge that is swallowing nuance. Suddenly, misinformation is on equal footing with information that has been hypothesized and vetted through research. Often this misinformation is presented in bite-sized morsels and offered in bright, shiny packages that are easy to buy, swallow and discard. All of this has left the public, busy with everyday life, to discern between fact and fiction, and journalists crossing their fingers that John and Jane Q. Public take the right (or perhaps left) exit on the information highway. And it has left journalists to wonder if they are the antidote to extremist attitudes or part of the problem. If the game today is the acquisition of eyeballs by presenting simplistic and radical viewpoints that grab people’s attention, it creates a crisis of confidence in the newsroom as to what the goal of reporting in the information age really is.

From the public’s perspective, the most immediate danger is the availability of information that coincides with our preconceived notions and formulaic patterns of thought. Whatever political proclivities one possesses can be easily accessed through all forms of media from print to broadcast and everywhere in between. It has never been easier to join the herd. Political moderates are being marginalized with the left and right wings alternately vying for attention by reaching further toward polar extremes of the spectrum. If liberalism is what you seek, Olbermann  is your man. Conservatism? I give you Glenn Beck. It’s Murdoch versus Sulzberger, Charles Koch versus George Soros. Have extreme viewpoint, will travel.

Of course the great divide in American politics has always been there; it simply lays dormant during healthy economic periods. The difference today is in our level of engagement with the news and our ability to more easily access information that feeds our personal ideologies. This effectively mutes any sensible middle-ground arguments that may have otherwise surfaced in times of crisis—solutions that could provide a stint of fresh ideas to break the arterial hardening of our collective thought processes and provide oxygen through the body politic and into the brain, where it is needed the most. Instead we are left with pundits who shout at the rain and howl at the moon to grab our attention, which is easily quantified by ratings, page views and Facebook fans.

But media outlets haven’t cornered the market on extreme viewpoints. This week WNYC-FM aired a report about the growing popularity of faith-based search engines that return search results based upon religious guidelines. One example given is the Christian search engine SeekFind.org. The report claims, “If you search ‘gay marriage,’ you would get results that argue against gay marriage. And if you type in ‘Democratic Party,’ your first search result is a site on Marxism.” The report goes on to talk about Jewish and Muslim search engines that also tailor results to their respective faiths and the growing popularity of niche technology that allows people to remain in their ideological and religious bubbles.

The election results from Tuesday’s primary are a window into the American psyche that should not only alarm every incumbent politician, but every moderate-thinking American. People are in a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of mood at the moment, which is being fueled by partisan rancor in the media. A word of caution: When success in the media is measured by friends, fans and page views, and talk show hosts become leaders of movements, the race to the bottom is on a fast and slippery track. Our industry may be under financial attack and duress from all sides, including within, but the printed word of true journalists will remain the closest tie to the truth.

Which brings about my personal crisis of confidence. While I helm an alternative weekly that is part of the grand tradition of quality journalism, I also author this column: a bully pulpit with the tendency to engender either anger or support. And while I take it very seriously and am grateful for the platform, it sometimes feels as though my outrage is part of the disservice being done in the media today. Nevertheless, we have a job to do. That job consists of obsessive observation, analysis and argument. And argue we shall because reasoned arguments tend to hang in the air, to be listened to long after the crowd has dispersed and the yelling has all but gone.

Journalism – It’s a Wonderful Death

jimmystewartEvery time an Internet page loads, a newspaper journalist gets his wings. Which is to say, said journalist is dead.

With news content available through countless portals, our unrelenting appetite for information is growing ever larger. As a result our palate is becoming less discriminating. We have become a nation of news junkies relying upon a steady diet of fast food news delivery and brain candy. Contrary to popular belief about the flagging newspaper industry, editors and journalists have seen this coming for many years. The level of consumption is hardly the problem; rather it is the proliferation and subsequent commoditization of content that has quelled the appetite of both the consumer and advertiser to pay for it.

These are desperate times that call for desperate measures as evidenced by Washington Post Publisher Katherine Weymouth’s much criticized, and now defunct, plan to sell access to key Washington insiders to the highest bidders. On the surface there should be little issue with arguably the most powerful political news organization in the nation leveraging its influence to make a few sheckles. (Hey, what we do ain’t cheap.) But it calls into question the integrity of the product by blurring the lines of independence—the very thing that is supposed to set newspapers apart from other media.

Suppose all of the George Baileys in the media business could examine American history sans the free press. My guess is it wouldn’t be such a wonderful life. Where would democracy be today if our founding fathers didn’t intimately understand the importance of freedom of the press? (Mind you, it probably didn’t hurt that they all seemed to own a newspaper.) Perhaps no one excoriated the free press more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. But it was Jefferson who famously noted that a free press without government would be preferable to government without a free press. Actually, we don’t have to look that far back or tell our troubles to Clarence on the bridge. A quick glance around the globe and you will that find bloggers are being censored in Iran, the Chinese government is mandating the installation of software that blocks certain websites, and France is nationalizing its daily newspapers, all shocking occurrences in a modern society—except for that bit about the French.

So what qualifies as “free press” in today’s world? The very concept of a free press indicates that no one controls the information that is reported. The question of who ultimately owns the news—the advertiser, the reader or the publisher—is a terrific debate in and of itself. Can a medium that censors advertisers based upon certain beliefs truly be trusted? What if the medium doesn’t discriminate against funding sources? Marketplace on National Public Radio, for example, is sponsored by ConAgra and Monsanto (the axis of evil). Heresy, to be sure, but I still trust NPR’s journalism more than most.

A traditional news-gathering operation such as the Long Island Press has to maintain a delicate balance between supporting our advertisers and dispensing news in an objective manner. Having the fortitude to write a negative piece or review about a company or institution that supports you is a task that would make any business owner sick. But, in the words of Hyman Roth, “This is the business we have chosen.”

Unfortunately for Long Islanders, the prepackaged load of steaming manure that our local daily paper has become is an affront to all truth-seeking journalists. Don’t get me wrong, they may still be the 800-pound gorilla in the room but the storied past of Newsday, complete with Pulitzer Prizes and one of the greatest foreign bureaus ever assembled, is officially deceased. But don’t expect a Michael Jackson-sized funeral for these journalists toiling in Hades; they have all quietly received their wings while the Dolans ventilate their corpses on life support.

But hey, how ’bout that redesign?

I wonder what they would charge for a cocktail party with Tom Suozzi, Steve Levy, Peter King and James Dolan? I’d pay at least a hundred bucks for that picnic. We could gather around a campfire of freshly ignited Fios cable boxes and useless newspapers and sing “Auld Lang Syne” while toasting the death of journalism.